Improve Your Photography: Shooting Your Holiday Lights

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Need help taking brilliant photos of your holiday lights? I am going to use my family Christmas tree as a subject but this technique will work for virtually any light source to varying degrees. You can also do this with your outdoor light displays.

Getting a great shot of your tree is a lot easier than you might think and requires no special equipment. Just follow a few simple rules:

The first rule is — turn off your flash!

The flash is going to overpower the lights on your tree and is going to result in a boring photo.

Use a tripod

This is critical because there is no way you are going to be able to handhold these shots.

Need one? Check out our gear guide.

Use your smallest aperture

This is what gives you the interesting highlights.

Looks nice, right? This is probably what most of your shots look like. It is a nice representation of the tree but it is a little dull. 

This is much better, don’t you agree? The difference between these two photographs is the aperture used. The smaller the aperture, the more profound the “starburst” effect of the lights. It is as simple as that! 

Now to get in closer and show off a couple ornaments on the tree.

All images were shot at ISO 100 with a Nikon D60. (Note: the D60 is a compact sensor camera with a 1.5 crop factor – the focal lengths shown are the lens focal length. To get the 35mm equivalent multiply by 1.5).

Tree #1, had an exposure of 1.5 seconds @ f/5.6 (20mm)

Tree #2, had an exposure of 28 seconds @ f/25 (20mm)

Close-up #1, had an exposure of 8 seconds @ f/5.6 (36mm)

Close-up #2, had an exposure of 30 seconds @ f/32 (36mm)

This technique will work for practically any light source, indoors or outdoors. It isn’t always predictable, as you can see some of the lights are affected more than others and you cannot control the shape of the star. The shape and number of points is determined by the characteristics of the lens you are using. If you want more consistency and control over the shape you can use a “star” filter on the lens. The filter is essentially clear glass with lines etched in it. The filters come in a wide variety – between 2 and 16 point stars – and other effects. You can also control the direction of the points, depending on the filter.

Don’t have a tripod? That’s okay, you can still do this but you limit yourself. The shots here are in portrait mode which requires a tripod and a head that allows me to turn the camera on its side. If you don’t have a tripod you can still shoot in landscape by putting the camera on a table, stack of books, chair, etc… just about anything that allows the camera to sit flat and not move.

Another solution is to use a lamp. Yes! You can take the lampshade off of your lamp and screw the camera into the thread at the top (Warning – make certain the lamp is stable before letting go of the camera. It won’t work for real heavy camera/lens combinations. Use good judgement – we don’t want broken lamps or cameras!).

That’s it! Turn off your flash, put your camera on a tripod and stop down to your smallest aperture. You will notice an immediate improvement in your holiday light photos.

One last thing before I go. Some of you may be asking – what about the beautiful shots of blurry lights? That calls for the exact opposite approach – shoot wide open and use a shallow depth of field to throw the lights into a blur. This is called bokeh. You can control the shape of the out of focus highlights with various accessories.

This was originally published on Exploring Photography with Joe Valencia.

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